Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Just in Case you Miss the Point

Trivium condescends and plunges to the depths of my soul.

Sorry, I learned a long time ago that if I wanted to have a serious relationship to anything difficult: race, sex, class, sexual orientation issues, marriage issues, or with anyone different than myself, I would have to conquer my fear of being called a bigot.

10 comments:

Christine Robinson said...

You are awfully brave to be banging your head against this particular brick wall, LT. And during your vacation, too!

Kate R said...

Perhaps I am the only UU reading this conversation old enough to remember that we have "been there, done that, destroyed lives and churches in the process" 35 years ago when many of our congregations experimented with the previous incarnation of "polyamory".

Those who think this is a new idea or an untried social experiment are, as usual, historically ignorant.

I was in my early 20'a at the time my conservative, MidWestern UU congregation began reading the popular book on Open Marriage and the various spin offs. Like "Polyamory" Open Marriage had many and varying definitions and degrees of commitment. Most common were spouses that prevailed upon their other spouse to add a third person to the marriage. Some saw open marriage as a marriage which allowed for a twosome with others becoming a part of the relationship for a temporary fling.

Our church had a "discussion group" that was actually held at church. The DRE was involved in an open marriage.

This was quite common in that era.

Most of the Open Marriages broke up rather quickly leaving shattered adults and hurt children. A few returned to being two person marriages. I don't know of any threesomes that survived more than a few years. One would think that if this were a way of life with longterm promise that some identifiable number of these relationships would have survived and prospered.

However, more important to me, as someone who later became a minister, is the ill effects the acceptance and promotion of these kinds of relationships had on our congregations. Many people left our churches during that time because of the predatory atmosphere fostered by those advocating Open Marriage. Young people tired of being hit on by older men and women looking for a "third". Middle aged married people didn't care to be excoriated for being puritanical. Church parties were often interupted by some emotional scene caused by the jealousies these relationships fostered. Parents were ambivalent about an RE program run by a woman who didn't appear to respect her marriage vows. The "Open" aspect of "Open Marriage" gave cover and respectability to the time honored tradition of open adultery. It was a mess. Many churches never really recovered from it. A primary aspect of the fallout was that enforcing appropriate sexual boundaries had become taboo and left churches open to sexual predators ---- it is no accident that clergy misconduct was rife in that era and in the decade that followed. Worse still, I remember that many of those who argued for the "loose" boundaries for adults, including open marriage, vocally opposed efforts to protect children in our churches from sexual predators. It is no accident, that setting clear sexual boundaries for our clergy in the late 80's was a prelude to doing something to make our congregations safer for our children.

The harm Open Marriage did to our churches and its use in breaking down appropriate sexual boundaries is the primary reason I would never use any UU institutional means to support polyamory. Our history has created a presumption against it. Indeed, I discourage those who would promote polyamory within a church I am serving.

However, even without that history, I would feel UU's have no business promoting an untested social experiment. The fact that it was tested and failed almost universally with disastrous results makes the presumption against it even stronger.

And even if that were not the case, I don't really see the role of a church as being the fostering of social and sexual experimentation. We have plenty of social justice work to do without being distracted by a tiny group who want to use us to promote onde again a failed experiment that has no up side for us or our congregations.

hafidha sofia said...

Whoa. That sounds awful. I'd heard about minister misconduct going on throughout the UUA in years past, and wondered what was up with that. Kate's comment sheds light on that issue for me!

Adam Becker Sr said...

Kate R,

Thanks. Joining UU in the early 80's, I heard discussion of why UU membership had crashed nationwide in the '70's. (1) The Black empowerment controversy, (2) the scandals in LRY, and (3) the other stuff...

I just now learned about what that other stuff really was.

I'd heard vague references to what you discussed. But in more than 25 years as an on-the-book UU, I've never heard it laid out that plainly before.

And LT, thanks for articulating your viewpoint. It clearly needs to be said, not just once, but over and over

Ellis said...

Thank you Kate. This has been my experience as well. And I am talking about the last ten years, not the last forty!

PeaceBang said...

Jamie's post makes no compelling arguments. It asks no helpful questions. It is insulting, ageist and full of projections (the key one being that if you don't support polyamory, you must be a bigot who had to be dragged, unwilling, to the enlightened status he has achieved about things like full participation of gays in religious life).
Oy vey.

As I wrote on Jamie's blog, it's hard enough for children to shuttle between two parents in the aftermath of a split. Does he actually think it's fair --or an improvement --to expect them to bop around between three or four or more parents, given divorce rates?

I told him that I think his post was a low-point. It contributed nothing but venom. But now we have some comments by folks who remember the open marriage experiments of the 1970's and can speak to why they didn't work and how damaging they were, and that's constructive.

Feelings and ideals are important, yes, but so is experience.

rachel said...

A friend of mine steered me to this blog. I am the adult daughter of poly parents, grew up during the an exceptional episode in the UU past about this, and want to tell my story.

My mother was the one who approached my father about an open marriage in 1960. She told him that she still loved him and did not want to leave him, but also wanted to explore her attraction to women. As my parents recounted to me, their decision to do so came after much intense discussion and soul-searching. They laid down rules and boundaries, including how to juggle this with their infant daughter (me)

My memories growing up were very happy ones. We also went to a Unitarian church (the merger was still recent) where I made many great friendships.

I was thirteen when my parents sat me down for 'the talk'. They explained that they did love each other and me, but they also loved other people. They also said that they had hoped to tell me about this when I was older, but that something had happened in church.

The new associate minister had been very excited about open marriage and wanted to bring it up in the congregation. In response, my parents wanted to take a more cautious approach - and doing that would mean 'outing' themselves to the rest of the church.

The church leadership heeded my parent's advice. They took a 'quiet' approach to the question of open marriages and 'swinging' (my parents never embraced that term or its subculture, much as polyamorous people shy from it today). The ministers and RE staff sat with my mother, who explained things from her own experience. She became a lay minister for couples, and I remember her recounting to me that she steered people away from open relationships more often than not (her stock phrase for that was 'I don't think you will find what you are looking for that way').

Over time the issue died down - not from blowups or scandals, but from lack of interest. I grew up none the worse for wear, in fact learning lessons from my parents' example that would guide me as a wife and mother. I didn't become polyamorous or promiscuous, not because I wanted to avoid being like my parents, but because they taught me to be true to myself even when it meant being different than them.

By the time I graduated from college, my parents had settled in with another couple to form a 'quartet'. When my father was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, Bill and Lisa helped my mother with his care until the end; in Lisa's last two years of life with cancer, my mother and I both helped Bill to care for her, and to grieve with him. Mom and Bill married soon after that (him being thirty years younger - what a scandal!) A year before she died, she formed a special motherly bond with a poly lesbian triad who joined the church shortly after becoming a welcoming congregation, and they became like sisters to me. I feel blessed to have such a family.

Is this story the exception? Of course it is. I've heard horror stories before about the time in the 1970's when UUs all over the country rushed headlong into the idea of open marriage and the extremes of the Sexual Revolution. Since then, i have learned that my parents' 'exceptional' relationship follows the current patterns of polyamory today much more than the patterns of open marriage and swinging back then.

This is why I am writing. I hear the stories of the 1970's and I appreciate the pain and confusion that resulted from them. I also know that a third way exists and can work. My parents always made the point that what they chose was not for everyone, and resisted those 'revolutionaries' who wanted to push open marriage as a 'new ideal' for a new world. I remember at my mother's funeral, hearing from all sorts of people how in her own quiet way she preached a more revolutionary approach - her favorite saying that she passed along to so many, 'You don't have to throw away the rule book, just edit it carefully.' Yes, my parents and my church were the exception to the rule, and my parents exceptional people. That doesn't mean we cannot learn from that exceptional example.

As I said before, I am happily monogamous, but I also know from the example of family and friends that other ways of loving can be a 'live option' for some people. I understand fully how the wounds of the past would make many afraid and angry about this, and I can see why churches in this day and age would approach this with caution. But there is a difference between taking fears into account, and letting fears overrule love and reason. There is also a difference between the extremes of the 1970's and the polyamory community of today.

Rachel

Anonymous said...

chuckle--I was about to introduce myself as "Rachel" (a pseudonym I've used in other lists/communities) but I see another Rachel has just posted!

So I'll be PolyHeartRachel.

I was a UU kid. Went through the RE program at Cedar Lane in the late 70's/early 80's. I remember some deep thinking prompted by the curriculum on values clarification. I also remember feeling it was pretty cool and liberated that at MY Sunday School, unlike at my friends' churches, WE talked about SEX (in the AYS class).

And now? I'm 40, got a family of my own, we've settled back on the east coast, in the NY area, and I'm serving as trustee at my small UU congregation.

I think back to the AYS class of my youth, and other ethics discussions, and cannot recall any mention of the possibility of responsible nonmonogamy.

I think back to when H. and I decided we loved each other enough to move beyond girlfriend/boyfriend status. We moved in together. We married. Nobody said to me/us before our wedding day, "Just so you know, dear(s), monogamy is not the only arrangement one can have with one's beloved."

Instead, as smart and as well-educated and as open-minded as I was, this was one cultural assumption that somehow remained entirely invisible to me. The assumption that monogamy is the only ethical relationship model.

Here's what happened to me (this is long--if you want to skip to the bottom line, scroll down to the asterisks):

It was about five years into our marriage, four years into parenthood, that H. and I became friends with Alicia and Ian.

We liked them. They, too, had a young child. We had dinners together, watched the kids together, enjoyed lively conversation and the things we had in common. Before too long, Alicia and Ian had to move farther away, but close enough for car trips. Our visits after that involved being houseguests, staying the night, having breakfast together. Spending even more time with each other.

Over time, I noticed my feelings, my preoccupation with Ian. I tried to interpret my feelings in terms of friendship rather than anything beyond that. I explained to myself that I cared deeply for him as a dear friend. It was a terrible mental struggle. Such denial.

And finally, the truth. I admitted to myself that I felt love and desire for this man. The denial was over, but now the grief began over what I thought were the implications--that I must not love H. anymore, as I had these feelings for another.

I suffered with this secret, withholding it from H., which was damaging to our relationship. My secret made me feel more distant from him, made me shrink from his touch.

I sank into horrible self-loathing, feeling I was wrong and bad. Depression.

I searched for consolation. (Didn't have a minister back then.) I tried to find literature on the theme of my pain, anything written by anyone who had ever been through something similar. The young married woman's guilty, secret, unrequited desire for someone else.

Then, at last, a turning point: somehow* I came across a column by a young woman who'd had a similar falling-for-someone-else experience. She felt terrible about it. But her self-image changed when she encountered the idea that it's possible for the heart to feel love for more than one person. And she stopped hating herself. She figured her nature might be "polyamorous" rather than monogamous.

(*I've tried hard to remember how this happened. I think it must have been a column in Loving More magazine, but exactly how I came to have a copy of LM is hazy in my memory now.)

Thus, my healing began. I received the good news that having more than one person in one's heart is quite possible, and having more than one lover at a time needn't involve betrayal, dishonesty, deception. I dumped the logic of monogamy.

Looking in my heart, I knew I wanted to, and still DID, love H. Feeling love for Ian did not mean my love for H. had to end.

It was time for confession. I told H. the truth about my inner emotional ordeal--my attraction to Ian, how my self-hatred was transformed into self-acceptance, my conclusion that I'm poly. It hurt H. to learn all this. After all, he, too, had spent his whole life inside the monogamy box. All those love stories we absorb...from childhood fairytales to adult literature...as portrayed in television, film and music...the assumption remains hidden, goes unquestioned by so many of us. We internalize the cultural dictum that love requires exclusivity. If you love me, you'll love only me.

I had a fleeting hope that H. would be interested in the idea of us dating them as couples. He did find Alicia attractive. But no, he wasn't interested in trying that.

We weren't getting together with Ian and Alicia as often for various reasons, but part of it was definitely my discomfort with pretending that all was well around them. During this time, Alicia became pregnant. I had the sense that there was a growing distance between our lives and theirs.

I started planning what I would say in a confession to them, to come clean finally, to get the blessed truth out there in the open. Of course I felt anxious about overstepping the bounds of propriety that far. Ian and Alicia were unconventional themselves in numerous ways, but I didn't know how this dose of honesty would go over with them. And I didn't want to do anything that might stress Alicia, jeopardizing her pregnancy.

Still, I hated the charade...I wanted to let Ian and Alicia both know the truth about what was going on with me. At times during our friendship they had noticed a certain melancholy in me, and would ask what was up, and I yearned to explain. By now, I was ready to be done with both the longing and the secrecy.

Alicia had her baby, and eventually we made a trip to see their growing family. It had been a very long time since we'd been together--I can't even recall if we'd seen Alicia during her pregnancy, or just spoken on the phone... It had been many months.

Beforehand, I'd told H. that I wanted to come clean with them. He wasn't happy about it, but he grudgingly accepted that that was what I planned to do.

So that night, I sat the four of us down, and confessed that about three years earlier, I'd started falling in love with Ian.

They were a bit stunned. I kept going, telling the truth I'd rehearsed. The truth about how I'd wrestled with myself, how I realized I still love H., how I've come to see myself as poly. My news was clearly not a pleasant surprise to either of them.

One irony about the whole thing was that Alicia had once told me she'd had an affair with a married man (this was before being with Ian). And now, here I was, another woman admitting to being attracted to her husband, though having behaved honorably the whole time. I didn't do what she'd done. No matter--I guess it still felt like a betrayal to Alicia.

There were a few more phone calls, and one more "closure" visit between Alicia and me. Then, no more contact.

A sad ending to some happy times together.

Fast forward ten years. H. and I are still married, and I'm still honoring his wishes by practicing monogamy. I've never betrayed him by having an affair. I recently developed feelings for another wonderful person who is single & available, and I checked with H. again. Are you still not okay with letting me have a boyfriend?

He's still not okay with that. Cheating is simply not an option for me. I'm not ready to leave H. So we go on.

I've grieved. Some days, I feel imprisoned by my circumstances. At the same time, I love H., who is wonderful to be with in so many ways. He asks, Why am I not enough for you? I ask him back, Why isn't my love for you enough? I've become resigned to this fundamental incompatibility between us--his need for sexual exclusivity in our relationship, my desire to be more free to express my love for another. I may decide, a few years down the road, once our child has left the nest, to become single again. But I have still not cheated.

* * * * *

My point in describing all this? I would like UU ministers to know how my life was changed for the better when I gained awareness of responsibly nonmonogamous relationship models & access to virtual poly communities. And I hope, LT, you can see why I find myself shaking my head at the notion that "polyamory will lead to adultery." Not for me! No, feeling okay about what I want, talking to others who can relate, knowing that I'm not crazy or bad--this has been absolutely critical to my dignity & positive self-image. And the honesty between H. and me has been absolutely critical as well. Ever since coming to think of myself as "poly," I'd have to say the value I attach to my own sense of integrity and my commitment to being honest with H. have really "adultery-proofed" me.

The pain of betrayal when people cheat...the breakup of families when a parent leaves one mate for another...I often think of how much suffering could be avoided if more people knew that monogamy is not the only relationship option for ethical people.

PolyHeartRachel

Louise said...

Kate R, Rachel and PolyHeartRachel: Thank you for sharing your stories. It is so good to hear the voices of people intimately involved in this issue.

LT: Thank you for asking difficult questions and standing by them in rough seas. The quality of the discussions continue to give me hope.

To all who contribute to the debate on various blogs, thank you. If it were an easy topic, we wouldn't be struggling. Thank you for the faith that it is important enough to discuss.

kim said...

PolyHeartRachel -- You write about being attracted to and loving others. but you didn't say anything about how you would feel if he wanted to too.
i think that the true test of whether or not you are really "poly" would be more of how you would feel about it if your husband also felt that way -- would you be as comfortable with him loving others as you would be with you loving others?
I admire your steadfastness with regard to not cheating and not pressuring your husband to go along with anything he's not genuinely into.
----------
I was very interested to hear about UU history on this issue. I guess it's "been there, done that", and it is way too open to abuse to offer blanket support to: Rachel's parents' thoughtful way of going about it is clearly a rare case. How could you insist on wisdom? How can you make sure people "do it right" and don't use it for abuse? Since that's clearly a difficult question, and probably too large an issue for UUism to spend itself on, what about the other relevant question: can we be against discrimination toward poly people without backing polyamory?